Telling family and friends

Mike and I chose to be fairly silent about what was happening in our house during the early days because we didn’t know what was happening. We had the luxury of living sixteen hours away from the closest family member and could be very selective about who we spoke to. Clearly, the neighbors knew something was up because suddenly our four year old was wearing headbands and proclaiming to the world that it was okay to wear dresses. We hit the jackpot by being situated between two of the coolest neighbors ever with equally awesome kids. They completely took it in stride like it was no big deal and told Conner how great she looked.

We also had become really close to another couple with twins a year older than ours. I’ve dubbed them “framily” because while we aren’t related I consider them family. There were many moments that I sat weeping in their kitchen, plied with coffee or wine depending on the time of day,  while our kids played in the backyard. We were so blessed to have a network of support during that time while we figured out what was going on and how to proceed. I wasn’t intentionally trying to avoid my family, but I didn’t have any answers and I was a total wreck when I talked about it. So, I chose to save face a little bit until we knew more.

Once we had met with our therapist and pediatrician, I did have multiple lengthy conversations with our parents. Our whole family had recognized for quite some time that Conner was different in ways that we couldn’t quite put our finger on, so when I shared the diagnosis with them they were surprised and yet not. The specific diagnosis was a surprise, but it also cleared up a lot of questions for them. Understandably, it opened up a whole new set of questions that we are still discovering the answers to five years later.

Once we told our parents, we decided to share the news with the rest of our family and close friends through a letter. I’ve been upfront that we struggled. Despite being a straight ally for LGBT issues, I was completely unaware that transgender kids even existed. It had just never crossed my mind. I knew I wouldn’t be the only one of our loved ones who had no idea what being transgender meant. While it wasn’t a difficult decision to support our child, we did have to do a lot of self-education about the differences between gender and sexuality.  My husband and I decided to allow our loved ones the same opportunity to examine their hearts privately without needing to give us an immediate reaction. We included an article about gender identity disorder from the Children’s National Health System as well as several links to supportive websites (many are in the resources tab). We’d also had recent family photos done at a local park to show that we looked just like any other family with a son and a daughter.

We were nervous as we handed 100 letters to the post office, but also very secure in our decision. We knew that supporting Conner was the right choice and were hopeful that our loved ones would agree with us. We’d heard horror stories from so many other parents about family fights, loved ones refusing to switch pronouns, or friends dropping off the face of the planet. We knew that was a distinct possibility but we were also prepared to discover who our allies would be.

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The response was immediate and almost completely positive. I would encourage anyone at the start of this journey to withhold preconceived ideas about who will support you and who won’t. I was shocked both by who was supportive and by who wasn’t. We did lose a few friends and even fewer family members, but almost everyone was accepting. We knew that a visit home to see our loved ones would help a lot as Conner was so happy and exuberant that it confirmed every decision we’d made. We allowed our loved ones to read the letter, take time to process it, then made plans to spend two weeks back home to introduce our new family.

Here’s the letter we sent. Feel free to use it for yourself. It’s a compilation of many letters we’d seen from other parents.

Dear Friends and Family,

We hope all is well with you and allow us to apologize for sending a form letter to so many of our loved ones. Our family has important information to share and we felt a letter would be the easiest way to explain a lot of what’s been going on recently. This gives us the opportunity to share a lot of information and you the chance to react to this news privately and honestly without worrying that your reaction may offend or upset us. Don’t worry, everyone is healthy, and Mike and I are still happily married.

Many of you who have spent time with us over the past four years have probably noticed that Conner has often shown preference for toys and clothes for girls. I know we’ve giggled when he put towels on his head like hair or wore all of my sister’s bracelets and squealed over her shoes. These behaviors are often a normal part of the natural curiosity of children. However, over the past year, Conner has been showing more and more behaviors that caused us enough concern that we’ve involved our pediatrician, spoken to a number of experts across the country, and traveled to Chicago to have Conner evaluated by a therapist who works with children with gender identity concerns.

We have recently learned that Conner has a medical condition called Gender Identity Disorder (GID). I have enclosed some web links about this medical condition if you would like to read them, but in short, Conner’s brain tells him he is a girl even though he has a boy’s anatomy. The benchmark of GID is the marked distress a child feels when forced into the gender of his or her anatomical sex. Last fall, Conner tried to tell us that he was a girl, but it took us until a few months ago when Conner wanted to get rid of his penis and talked about cutting it off with a knife or scissors that we realized something was very wrong. This would be an example of the “marked distress” that indicates Gender Identity Disorder.

There are a few theories about what causes GID. Some of the tests we don’t have technology for yet. What is clear, however, is that this is not a choice. Conner is not choosing to be a girl anymore than Melissa is.

In terms of treatment options, trying to convince Conner that he is a boy does not work. We have been doing that for years and it hasn’t worked. In fact, it has caused Conner a lot of stress and anxiety, especially over the past year, because we thought his questions about why he couldn’t be a girl were an indication of confusion. For months, we kept correcting Conner and telling him he was a boy and would grow up to be a man. Instead of getting better, Conner became more and more upset. There is not a way to “correct” him without causing him more harm and that is not an option for us. We have recently decided to allow him to be who he is, a girl. This means we are letting Conner wear whatever clothes feel most comfortable. We tried to use gender-neutral pronouns, but this too caused Conner enough anxiety that we have started referring to Conner as “her” instead of “him.”

This has not been easy for us and will, no doubt, be hard for many of you as well. That’s okay. We know you love us and want the best for us-that’s why you’re getting this letter. We want you to understand what this means so that we can all be honest with each other about our concerns and our fears.

What does the future hold? Will Conner grow out of it? Will the hormones kick in and regulate? Will Conner’s brain change to support the extra bits she was born with? We don’t know. What we do know is that both Conner and Murphy are happy vibrant children that love the world around them.

Murphy has handled the changes in Conner very well. There have been a few fights over who gets to wear the sparkly pink flip-flops, who’s turn it is to play with the Barbie Princess Fairy, and who gets to grow up and be a mommy. You know, the usual sibling fights. Murphy is making out like a bandit as we have tried to show that being a girl is not better than being a boy, so both kids are sporting a lot of new clothes and toys. We couldn’t do it without the help of friends with hand me downs and resale shops.

We are not overly concerned about kindergarten. We have a lot of neighborhood kids that have been very supportive of Conner and Murphy, which is encouraging us that kids don’t care about gender as much as we think they do.

We will be getting some help with educating the school where our kids will be attending this fall. We’re just as excited as any family getting ready for the first day of kindergarten. Of course, we do have concerns and we’re not unaware of the potential for teasing. However, we believe that supporting both of our children to be who they are is more important that forcing them to conform to the expectations of others to avoid teasing.

We plan on visiting soon. You should be aware that Conner will be dressed like a little girl and we will refer to her as being a little girl. We ask that you also refer to Conner by her name or as “she” and “her” especially in her presence. I have included some recent photos of our kids at the park so you can see that our family remains as normal as we ever were.

We welcome any questions about this, as education is the key to understanding. You are all very important to us. We will not welcome ridicule, criticism, and sarcasm. We trust that you will respect us as a family navigating through life with a child who has a medical condition. I ask that you call us with your questions instead of bombarding our parents. Our parents have also only recently heard this news as we wanted to speak to experts, get second opinions, and have Conner evaluated by a therapist before making big announcements. Our parents are still dealing with their own emotions so I ask that you respect their privacy during this time and not overwhelm them with questions they can’t answer. Mike and Melissa are happy to engage in discussion about this and answer any questions you have. Thank you for your love and support.

With Love,

 Mike and Melissa

 

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/57565555@N00/3196058783″>Rural Mailbox</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/”>(license)</a>

8 thoughts on “Telling family and friends

  1. emma avalos

    Hello, I used to work at TJs with Mike and maybe even met you, Melissa, and the kids a few times.
    I came across your blog on Facebook and immediately drank in each post about Conner’s transition, as well as the whole family’s. So far in my experience ,when one of us goes through big transformation, it is not isolated and those closest to us experience their own journey along with us. Reading your posts, I went through feelings of compassion and big support for you all and then just a powerful wave of gratitude to you and Mike for your journey and honesty with your emotions and story, for sharing it with us, and most of all for your completely blessed kids to have you two as parents! In middle school, I had a close friend and (then) boyfriend who struggled as a small child and all her life with family with her transgender identity. Sadly i have no idea where she is now but know that it has been a very rough path without family support. I do not want to upset or offend, but i wouldn’t myself call the situation a disorder, but one of the many mysteries of life, of beautiful, natural diversity in the world that we do not expect but that bring us into more love and more open-ness with ourselves and each other . I think gender and sexuality is a wide spectrum and not a black/white label. For myself and others who dwell in gray areas of sexuality/gender, i am so grateful for your vulnerable sharing and (though it doesn’t feel like it) courageous and inspiring parenting! Conner must be so beautiful in her coming into herself! So much appreciation and support from afar as you continue your journey as a family!

    Reply
    1. Melissa McLaren Post author

      Hi Emma. Thank you for reaching out. I (and many many other parents) agree with you that this ISN’T a disorder. They’ve actually changed the “diagnosis” from gender identity disorder to gender dysphoria which is a much better explanation for what happens. Gender dysphoria is basically discontent or discomfort with the body’s anatomy when it doesn’t align with the gender expression. Some people are quite content to identify as neither male nor female but rather somewhere along the spectrum. Our experience was Conner’s intense level of distress with her body-hence the gender dysphoria. I completely agree with you that gender is not just binary as our culture tells us. So many other cultures embrace gender along a spectrum. Sexuality, which is very different from gender, is also along a spectrum as you so eloquently stated. I bet I’m preaching to the choir as I reply to your comment, but I wanted to use it as an opportunity to do some education as I’m sure others will read the comments. Thank you again for reaching out. –Melissa

      Reply
  2. Paul

    It looks like we’re going to be sending a similar letter soon. Ours hasn’t decided to declare transgender as yet, but he is gender nonconforming. We’re trying to open up the floor to him so that he can explore and decide where he wants to settle. It’s been a long road for us as parents and we get the feeling that the journey is only just beginning.

    Thanks for sharing your letter: it’s going to be very helpful when we compose our own.

    Reply
  3. Sheogorath

    We included an article about gender identity disorder […]
    Um, I don’t mean to be rude, but maybe you should change ‘gender identity disorder’ to ‘gender dysphoria’. Apparently, the latter term is less stigmatising than the former.

    Reply
    1. Melissa McLaren Post author

      When we sent the letter, it WAS called GID. We now use dysphoria but I wanted the original letter to stand.

      Reply
      1. Sheogorath

        I get what you say about letting the original letter stand as it is, but I wasn’t critiquing that. I actually quoted you from earlier on in your post. If you have your reasons for not changing anything in it, however (you don’t have to say what they are), I will understand.
        To be honest, I think I’m sometimes a little oversensitive because I’m an ally (trying to be, anyway), so I sometimes fight harder for respect for trans people than they would themselves. I sure as hell don’t want to pick a fight with you over terminology, though, since you’re already very respectful.

        Reply
        1. Melissa McLaren Post author

          I’ll have to go back and look at it. We definitely prefer gender dysphoria so I will look at the context and update it if needed. I’m not above someone pointing out errors because we want to be supportive for each other. I don’t feel criticized! Oh, that terminology critiques were the worst of what we endure!

          Reply
          1. Sheogorath

            We included an article about gender identity disorder from the Children’s National Health System as well as several links to supportive websites (many are in the resources tab).
            The quote above is the entire sentence I was speaking about, if it helps. The only reason I didn’t post the whole thing earlier is because I’m very conscious of copyright laws, so didn’t want to copy/paste more than I needed to.

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